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There’s an entire ecosystem of workers — dog walkers, health care professionals, even lawyers — whose hours, benefits and livelihoods are subject to the whims and fancies of algorithms. But with much of the discussion around the “gig economy” focused on drivers and couriers, others are getting short shrift.
On Thursday, the European Commission will launch a consultation with a view to regulate the industry. French MEP Sylvie Brunet wants to ensure it takes all platform workers into account.
“We are always thinking Uber, Uber, Uber,” said Brunet, who will publish a report the same day in a bid to get the Commission to take on her ideas.
“I think that we have to be large in the definition [of platform workers], just because we don’t know what the future will be … And it’s impossible to have a legislative initiative or text only for two sectors.”
Spain’s new so-called Rider Law highlights the pitfalls of focusing on only drivers and couriers, the most recognizable gig workers. The country’s labor ministry is currently working on legislation that would extend employee status to platform workers — provided they’re couriers.
An official deal has yet to be struck but El País reports that legislation with a wider scope is off the table. Spain’s labor ministry did not respond to POLITICO’s request for comment.
“We are again insisting that any new regulation is not solely focused on ‘riders’, as false self-employment goes far beyond our own sector,” said the Riders X Derechos labor union in a statement on February 11.
Who is a platform worker
Companies are fighting legal battles across Europe, largely around the contentious issue of whether workers on their platforms should be classified as employees — which would require them to pay for benefits like sick leave and pensions, for instance — or self-employed workers, which entitles workers to fewer benefits.
There doesn’t appear to be a clear answer yet. Last week, a Dutch court ruled that Deliveroo riders were employees, while in Italy a court said they are self-employed. In the U.K., the supreme court ruled on Friday that Uber drivers were entitled to minimum wage and holiday pay.
In part to avoid the hodgepodge of restrictions and rules across districts, let alone countries — which even the platforms don’t want — the EU wants do away with the resulting legal uncertainty.
But which platform workers should be given protections?
Online platforms are offering work opportunities in an increasingly broad range of sectors: from cleaning to care work, from lawyering to administrative tasks.
But with so much variation between the sectors, lawmakers have the thorny task of identifying who is a platform worker.
Fundamentally platform work ought to be “non-standard” and facilitated by online platforms, according to Brunet. But within that framework, she said “high-qualified” and “low-qualified” workers need to be distinguished.
“[Highly qualified workers] are really self-employed, they define their activity, they choose their customers and they fix their price … This is the main point. If it’s impossible for you to fix the price of your activity, you are not so independent,” Brunet said.
“Some of them, really, they would like to stay self-employed and independent,” she said. “Free.”
Brunet doesn’t believe a one-size-fits-all approach would work here. Trying to establish a European minimum wage has been hard enough, she points out, without introducing blanket employment law across 27 countries.
National capitals have more authority on labor law compared to Brussels.
Outside of ride-hailing and couriers, other parts of the gig economy have also ballooned.
Platforms specializing in long-term care of the elderly, for example, are on the rise, according to a 2019 report by EU agency Eurofound — with platforms such as Pflegix in Germany, Curafides in Austria and Home Care Direct in Ireland, to name a few.
But as the industry has expanded, so have its underlying problems. The same report cited “incomplete social protection, poorly monitored working conditions, lacking access to training and exposure to clients’ rating and control” as causes for concern.
While Uber drivers fight for a minimum wage, workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk, the e-commerce giant’s crowdsourcing platform, are earning pennies.
A current listing on the site, posted by a “requester,” offers 20 cents for an audio transcription; a quick scan of the first few listing pages reveals several academic survey tasks for not much more. Universities often use such platforms as a cheap way of gathering responses for fieldwork.
Requesters have the right to reject work after completion, affecting the approval rate of the worker in question and denying them their pay. The site says such rejections cannot happen “without good cause.”
Mechanical Turk workers have set up their own websites to advise one another on which tasks to go for and which requesters to avoid. One site said it “helps the people in the ‘crowd’ of crowdsourcing watch out for each other, because nobody else seems to be.”
The industry has morphed into something “dangerous,” Brunet said. “We have a problem … because it’s a stress for the workers in terms of psychosocial risks … It’s not a good evolution of the digital pact.”
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